Documentary Tells ‘Forgotten’ Story of Deadly 1977 Honda Canyon Fire

Flames overran the men sometime after 9 a.m., killing Turner, Vandenberg Fire Chief Billy Bell and Assistant Fire Chief Eugene Cooper.
(Augmentee Films LLC, YouTube)

Wildfire killed three firefighters and an
Air Force commander

Dave Minsky, Santa Maria Times, Calif.

(MCT)

May 30—On Dec. 20, 1977 the Honda Canyon Fire — fueled by hurricane-force winds — became a raging inferno that killed four people including installation commander Col. Joseph Turner, three Santa Barbara County firefighters and injured dozens more on Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Dennis Ford was an Airman first class on base and was a firefighting augmentee called to assist that day. Now 63, Ford has released Firestorm ’77: The True Story of the Honda Canyon Fire, a new 54-minute documentary about the fire told by the people who lived it.

The impetus for the film came about 10 years ago after a conversation between Ford and a worker at the Santa Maria Airport who told him the fire never happened.

“I deal with this guy who tells me it never happened,” Ford said. “The point is that history has been forgotten and that sent me on a long course to create a documentary.”

Ford co-produced the movie with Joe Valencia, who also fought the fire, and partnered with Chris Hite, an Allan Hancock College film professor, who directed. The film includes interviews with 15 individuals, including several former County fire personnel and former KSBY reporter Melanie (Koolkanian) Bedwell.

The screenplay, which took two years to write, was completed in 2018 and film production began later that year, according to Ford. After finishing in October 2020, the three submitted the movie to more than a half-dozen film festivals. It received recognition, including an award for Best Feature at the 2021 San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.

Ford plans to hold more public events for the movie, which is now available to stream for $5 on www.malibuflix.com.

A tight budget kept the film’s length short, although it contains original audio and video footage, and 1970s era B-roll to take the viewer back in time, Ford said.

“It makes a very interesting story in terms of a film because there’s a lot of action going on, and it’s all true,” Ford said.

Dispatchers called the fire in sometime between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., when easterly wind gusts exceeding 100 mph pushed against a low-pressure storm from the west, knocking over a power pole that ignited a fire along Tranquillon Ridge. It started approximately three miles east of Space Launch Complex-6, according to Valencia, who was a 19-year-old Hotshot firefighter on base and who previously wrote about the experience.

Turner and several fire personnel were situated on an overlook above Honda Canyon observing the fire when the winds picked up, pushing flames through a narrow gap where they then jumped the ridge. Flames overran the men sometime after 9 a.m., killing Turner, Vandenberg Fire Chief Billy Bell and Assistant Fire Chief Eugene Cooper.

Bulldozer operator Clarence McCauley was critically burned and died days later, according to Ford. About 30 hours later, and after the fire scorched about 10,000 acres, a rain storm put the fire out, he said.

Ford believes the young firefighters were not prepared to fight a fire of that magnitude. The biggest travesty, Ford said, is that the people who fought in the fire never got the recognition they deserved.

The devastation, however, led to changes in how firefighters respond to wildland fires, according to Ford, who adds there is still a lot to be learned.

“We were sent out to fight this fire but we could never win the fight, because it wasn’t doable,” Ford said. “You can’t fight a fire in a hurricane.”

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